Can Pigeons Gamble?

When birds were given the opportunity to play a pigeon ”fruit machine” their resistance crumbled before the jackpot, irrespective if the odds were stacked against them.

The study indicated psychological addiction in pretty much the same way when humans purchased lottery tickets and popped in at casinos.

A device has been set up by researchers to test pigeon gambling tendencies with strong parallels to human slot machines.  The pigeons received special training to peck on one of two keys that indicated projected vertical or horizontal lines as well as red, yellow, green and blue colours.

In the event the correct keys were indicated the birds were rewards food pellets, this varied based on displays.  The ”jackpot” prize of 10 pellets, delivered on condition a key was pushed that showed a vertical line and a certain ”signal” colour, for instance red.

Zero pellets are normally coupled with vertical lines that are linked with another colour.   If a vertical line key was pecked, pigeons stand a 20% chance of being awarded 10 pellets but an 80% probability of getting nothing.

If a key with a level line was pecked by the bird, it was assured of receiving three pellets regardless of which colours were on display.

The scientist research indicated that six of the eight pigeons that participated in the experiment indicated a strong tendency to peck the vertical line key hoping to have won the jackpot.  Notwithstanding a series of repetitive trials they could have received 50% more pellets by choosing another option.

This typifies most human gamblers as pointed out by researchers who penned their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.  The study further indicated that non-human animals avoided ”a poor gamble” since it might impact on their survival.

Professors in Psychology Thomas Zentall and Jessica Stagner, from Kentucky University in Lexington, said: ”Pigeons have indicated in this experiment that they possess a very strong tendency to make maladaptive choices very similar to those of gamblers.  In other words, pigeons prefer a signal that has a small probability, lofty payoff option over a signal for a certain low payoff option that on average provides 50% plus back up.”

Additional tests have proved that when the pigeons saw a winning colour signal this in turn has held their attention span and kept them ”keen”.   Prior ”win” and ”lose” colours were mutually coupled with jackpot wins from the vertical line key; pigeons would rather choose the safer three-pellet option. In the event an exact colour came before a jackpot win were they induced to gamble, the research has indicated a strong correlation to the gambling behaviour in people as well.

The findings concluded: ”To match the winning combination of a lottery ticket normally comes before receiving the reward and watching the winning combination as it appears on a slot reel before the cash is received.  The question that has been asked: Would gamblers gamble frequently if there were no signals that signalled a win (e.g., slot players won’t be able to see the three wheels, roulette players will not be able to see the ball  bouncing over the slots in the wheel?).”



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